Self-service gas: a bargain no more

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Motorists searching for gasoline bargains are no longer apt to automatically find them at self-service pumps. Where there was once a 3-to-6-cent-a-gallon spread between pumping your own gas and having it pumped for you, the price difference at many stations has dwindled to a mere fraction of a cent, or nothing at all.

In fact, in some parts of the Midwest and East Coast where gas supplies have remained particularly tight, self-service pumps have been closed down. Dealers explain that rising rents and utility expenses require them to sell their limited gas supplies at the higher full-service price. They say that full-service pumps also make control of limited supplies easier and cut down on thefts by motorists who drive off without paying at unmanned pumps.

"The competitive marketing edge that self-service originally provided has disappeared to a great extent," confirms Richard Hebert at the American Automobile Association (AAA) national headquarters in Falls Church, Va. "Many stations have found they can sell all the gas they can get at their regular price. . . . The trend to convert to self-service islands has slowed down."

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"A lot of stations have cut out [self-service] islands completely," notes Mrs. Mickey Binsted of the National Congress of Petroleum Retailers. "And I think the conversion to self-service has pretty much stabilized."

In Chicago, close to half of all self-service pumps have been closed or switched back to full service. A key reason, according to Bob Esterman of the Illinois Gas Dealers Association, is a city regulation requiring a 5 percent price difference between gas pumped by motorists themselves and that pumped by station attendants. Local dealers are suing. "We think the regulation is probably illegal and certainly unfair," says Mr. Esterman.

In some regions, however, particularly in the Southwest and many rural areas, self-service pumps are holding their own and even growing. Some dealers who predict even more self-service growth as supplies ease up say that the economy of the do-it-yourself operation is indisputable.

"I don't expect any huge drop away from self-service because it's turned out to be an efficient way to economize," says Mike Scanlon of the National Oil Jobbers Council, which represents gas wholesalers.

"There's really no advantage to going full service if you can realize the same [profit] margin on self-service pumps," adds Bob Cavin of the Society of Independent Gas Marketers of America.

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